Challenge the Strong Wind: A Cover Story

Posted: Wednesday, June 10, 2020


Written by David Webster, Bishop's University

Challenge the Strong Wind Cover

If all books were judged by their cover, I’d have a winner.

Challenge the Strong Wind tells two stories.

The first story is about Canadian government policy toward East Timor, a small country invaded and occupied by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999. Despite a horrendous death toll that saw East Timor subjected to one of the worst episodes of mass killing in the late twentieth century, and despite massive human rights violations and state-induced famine, Ottawa spent 23 of those 24 years in strong support of Indonesia’s rule over the Timorese people. It was only in 1998 that the Canadian government finally came out in support of East Timor’s right to self-determination. In a referendum in 1999, the TImorese overwhelmingly voted for independence. They now have it, under the Portuguese-language name “Timor-Leste.”

How did that happen, and why did Canada change policy? I tried to answer that question through my book’s second story. This tale of activism goes back all the way to 1975. Canadians learning about the humanitarian catastrophe in East Timor tried to help and tried to get Canada’s government to shift its pro-Indonesia stance. So Oxfam-Canada and Oxfam-Quebec tried to send humanitarian relief in 1975. After they were prevented from doing so by the Indonesian military takeover, they lobbied Pierre Trudeau’s government to call for an Indonesian pull-out.

Unconcerned with human rights in a small Asian country and fearful of “another Cuba” in turbulent Southeast Asia, the Trudeau government instead opted for major support for Indonesia. That policy went on under Brian Mulroney, and Indonesia soared to become Canada’s number two aid recipient (support for Indonesia was bipartisan, in other words).

But Canadian activism for human rights also soared. Activists within Amnesty International formed the Nova Scotia East Timor Group in 1985. Around the same time, activists in Ontario created the Indonesia East Timor Program to campaign for human rights in both countries. Canada was a major donor and a major investor in Indonesia and therefore had influence, they argued. In 1987, Canadian supporters of East Timor came together to form the East Timor Alert Network (ETAN), a national network based in British Columbia.

In Challenge the Strong Wind, I write about a “narrative of irreversibility” peddled by the Canadian government, which argued that East Timor’s cause was impossible and therefore there was no point in supporting it. Foreign ministers including Allan MacEachen and Joe Clark even denied the existence of human rights violations in East Timor and identified Indonesia as a strategic partner. Yet Timorese activists insisted, in a popular slogan, “to resist is to win.” That meant that if they kept on struggling for independence, they were sure to win in the end. Their supporters in Canada picked up on that slogan and worked to keep the issue in the public mind and to change government policy. The activist narrative was one of hope: it insisted that independence remained possible. And it insisted that events in far-off Timor mattered in Canada. In the words of one protest placard, “East Timor is a Canadian issue.”

Indigenous Empowerment through Co-management cover

The flag of independent East Timor, raised in 1975, was banned under Indonesian occupation. But it was flown at demonstration after demonstration in Canada by Canadian supporters of the Timorese cause. The ETAN rally pictured here is just one image in which Canadian supporters carried the Timorese flag that was banned inside the country itself.

After independence, that flag is one among the dozens that hang in the Lester Pearson building in Ottawa, home to Global Affairs Canada. The clash between two narratives in Canada, surprisingly perhaps, saw the activist narrative of hope gradually erode the government’s narrative of irreversibility and finally win out. The reason, I argue, requires an examination of ETAN’s inroads into public opinion and especially the role played by Timorese refugees in Canada.

This was a tiny diaspora: only three Timorese, all of them university students who arrived in the 1990s. But they were able to reach thousands of Canadians who then lobbied the Canadian government. That government, in turn, gradually began to concede that independence was not impossible.

Hundreds of public events “showed the flag” for the cause of Timorese human rights – often literally. Sometimes it was flown in large rallies. Sometimes it was a lonely walk, for instance by Timorese refugee Bella Galhos at parliament hill.

Indigenous Empowerment through Co-management cover

When the Suharto government collapsed in 1998, activist pressure finally paid off, and the Canadian government reversed course. Toward the end of 1997, RCMP officers pepper-sprayed protesters at the APEC summit in Vancouver. That allowed Canada to keep a promise made by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy that Indonesian president Suharto would not have to see any protests while he was in attendance. It also put the East Timor issue squarely at the centre of public concern, as Timorese exiles also converged on Vancouver to join protests and counter-summits.

Within a year, Canadian cabinet minister Raymond Chan was speaking out publicly in support of the longstanding activist demand for self-determination in East Timor. The activist narrative had won out over the narrative of irreversibility, and the Canadian government was prepared to admit that independence was possible after all. In 1999, Canadian diplomats led by minister Axworthy were on the same page as Canadian activists and were able to take actions that may have saved many lives in East Timor.

So my book’s argument speaks to the power of narratives in shaping foreign policy. It speaks to diplomatic history but also the history social movements in Canada. That’s an angle that editor Randy Schmidt saw as he shepherded the book through the publication process.

When it came time to pick a cover, production editor Megan Brand noted the power of images of the Timorese flag. Two of them, pictured here, seemed to speak to the book’s themes. “East Timor is a Canadian issue,” one declared, and that seemed to sum up the connection between Canada and East Timor that is the book’s subject. Then, the theme of clashing narratives seemed to be embodied in the image of Bella Galhos trying to get the government – represented through the backdrop of the parliament buildings – to notice East Timor. Megan sent the pictures to designer George Kirkpatrick, who had himself witnessed some of the early protests and was able to capture their spirit in his cover image of the flag and in the fonts he selected.

Challenge the Strong Wind tries to weave visual images, and the way they were deployed in a clash of narratives, through the story it tells.  Space and time did not allow for the inclusion of every possible image. Later this month, I will publish an e-dossier telling the history of Canadian activism for East Timor through images at, which will add many more pictures.

Yet the flag stays with me. Banned in 1975, it flew again after 1999. In 2015, I saw it flying proudly at a celebration marking the restoration of Timorese independence and decided then and there to write a book. Thanks to UBC Press, that book has become a reality in 2020.

Posted by Megan M.
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